Marica Quarsingh calls her startup Sea-Stematic the “Tesla of seafood” to communicate how she believes seafood should be produced: sustainably and with the right global benchmarks and market insights.
Quarsingh, an arts and philanthropy lover who calls herself as a “born entrepreneur,” says she arrived in the world of foodtech, and at the idea for cell-cultured seafood in particular, because of food-related illness. Her mission now is to satisfy global demand for seafood, first by targeting countries that are supportive of cultured proteins, such as the US, UK, China, Qatar and Singapore.
Johannesburg Sea-Stematic is still in the early days of R&D, but it’s based in a market that is cultivating (pun intended) a small ecosystem of lab-grown meat startups, including Mogale Meat and Mzansi Meats. Quarsingh talked to AFN about her goal and journey to putting Africa on the map for cellular seafood.
AFN: First off, tell us what drew you to foodtech.
Marica Quarsingh: I started out in corporate South Africa, working in commercial roles, leading media agencies and consulting. Four years ago, I decided to embark on an entrepreneurial journey [related to] a clean energy solution for a contract in Shanghai. At the time, all of these food-borne zoonotic diseases were being reported. That anchored an understanding of food and humans and the challenges between.
I wanted to be in FMCG and was searching where the trends were leaning. It was very clear those were in novel foods: plant-based food and cultivated meats. I honed in on cultivated meats to get to seafood, which was not as visible in the market as its meat counterparts.
AFN: Why did you decide to establish the startup in South Africa, given that most of the work in cultivated proteins is happening outside of Africa ?
MQ: A big part of why is because this is where I’m from. We are in a pioneering space, and South Africa has the resources in terms of cutting edge technologies, talent, acumen, business models, and approaches for global participation. The bio-economy in South Africa has a strong synthetic-bio focus. We already have cultivated protein companies. The bio-economy of South Africa is going to be a very stimulating, aggressively growing one.
We are also engaged globally, which means we understand the innovation, collaboration and co-creation. And we are poised for the global market, as an entity that has the benefit of [attractive] exchange rates, making these technologies more affordable here than in other parts of the world.
AFN: Where are you in R&D and product development, given that you’re a fairly young startup (you incorporated just last year)?
MQ: Essentially, we will be looking at a salmon species and then other high-value, locally-available species. We extract their cells and then develop and harvest them – all while using clean energy solutions. We will also work with new-age bio companies that have established solutions that we need.
AFN: How did you source talent starting out in an R&D-heavy industry?
MQ: When we started, we were looking to work with scientists, as co-creation and collaboration is a very big part of our value proposition. We don’t believe in doing things alone.
Our model was to have a team in contracted IP. Our current R&D team and all of our scientists are South African. They have run and owned some parts of the value chain and have biotech companies that have patents in different parts of the world that have been majorly funded.
AFN: Which markets are you targeting?
MQ: While we are proudly South African, we don’t want to be excluded from the global narrative. We want to participate and scale in regions that pass cultivated meat policies.
By virtue of location, when other parts of the continent legislate, we will obviously participate in those regions. But because we see where the global landscape is, and who are passing policies, we’ll look at countries in Asia (such as China), the Middle East (such as Qatar) and Israel, the UK and US.
We believe in a global company, a global brand, with partners that are long standing food companies who want global share of market.
AFN: Will you also target African markets?
MQ: I think there would be a very significant share of market, if I look across the continent, that would be open to being the future consumer. But there would have to be an awareness [of cultivated meat] at the macro-level that would warrant policy being passed.
AFN: What milestones have you hit so far and what focusing on for the next five years?
MQ: [We’re focused on] getting closer to securing funding, as well as a soft commitment for our first manufacturing site in South Africa. By 2024 we want to have a mini R&S+D plant and have some commercial agreements secured in key countries that are legislating cultivated meats, such as Singapore and Qatar.
AFN: When do you plan to launch your first product?
MQ: Also in 2024. We want to enter the market knowing we’re in a market with pioneering companies that we are out to collaborate and compete with. The opportunity cost of not being first could come with the benefit of leveraging newer technologies available.
We have an approach that is very much driven by consumer insights. We have teams that are actively looking at key nations and the consumer trends and data insights needed to get into the market. There is a level of education required in any market, considering cultural nuances and religion.
We also have a strong community focus, where we work with culinary schools. We want to [raise awareness of future] chefs about cultivated seafood, as they would be the consumers and the decision makers in the industrial kitchens.
I think our model is progressive in that it speaks to mitigating risks and speaks to the most valued ways of innovating for global impact.